In Wayne’s war pictures, the message was unmistakable: one has a duty to his country and he has to do his best to perform it. In the 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima which earned him his first nomination as Best Actor, Wayne portrayed Sergeant Stryker, a professional soldier who fought in the blood-soaked beaches of Iwo Jima. But many Americans were beginning to question the U. S. newfound role as keeper of world peace. Attacks against The Green Berets were therefore expected. Wayne was labeled “Apostle of War” by the press.
Critics lashed at the film at all angles. But people lined up in theatres to see the movie, which was a huge box office success worldwide. In a period of turbulent protests, Wayne bravely faced anti-war crowds, giving them his idea of what America had always stood for. Once, he confronted student demonstrators in the University of Southern California who waved a Vietcong flag; they ceased waving the flag when he told them that his companion, Jimmy Stewart, had lost a son in Viet Nam.
(Szabaga 3). Gamely facing a forum of hostile youths in a university, Wayne even managed to win “the other side” by his father-figure and sense of humor. Asked why he wore a “phony toupee,” Wayne countered: “You’re wrong, this isn’t phony; it’s real. It’s not mine, of course, but it’s real” (Wayne 250). John Wayne continued to star in big-budget films long after contemporary actors had faded, retired or shifted to “character” roles, which meant they were no longer considered box-office draws.
Surprisingly, his aging lent greater depth and believability to his roles, and critics were beginning at last to take notice of him. In 1969, when he was 61 years old, he won the Oscar Best Actor trophy for True Grit. The climactic fight scene in that film shows John Wayne, as federal marshal Rooster Cogburn, ranged against four mounted antagonists on high altitude. His challenge rang clear: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch! ” Placing the reins between his teeth, he drew a pistol in his left hand and spun a rifle on the other, charging the bad guys.
Filming of the sequence took place all day before director Hathaway, a true perfectionist, was satisfied. Wayne refused to have a double, and the scene is one of the best ever produced. His Oscar could not have been more deserved: while filming the gut-wrenching action sequence, he was suffering from pain, one of his lungs having been removed some months before. While the critics did their best to downgrade his films, taking potshots at everything from the story to the acting, his films continued to make it big at the tills.
John Wayne made it a point to exclude all kinds of graphic violence in his movies, no rape, no “adult” scenes. His only passionate love scene was with Maureen O’Hara in the 1952 film The Quiet Man, the only contemporary love story he ever made. Despite the advent of the so-called “spaghetti westerns” starring Clint Eastwood and company, patronized due to their novelty and shocking violence, the appeal of the Duke did not wane, nor his formula for old-fashioned westerns change: the good guys still defeated the bad guys, and they did it fair and square.
Most people, movie fans in particular, often presume their idols are not unlike the roles they portray on screen. Thus, they are disappointed when they discover their swashbuckling hero on film a very tame, unexciting character in real life. John Wayne may not be exactly the same as his never-say-die characters, but he gave everything to maintain appearances as long as he could. His fans remember Duke as an aging but no less heroic figure. The lined, weather-bitten face, in fact, accented the gritty roles he portrayed onscreen, adding a touch of realism, vulnerability, and pathos.
That an aging actor would continued to act and be patronized by loyal fans was unheard of in Hollywood; Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were to follow Wayne’s footsteps. Although ravaged by cancer, he refused to display weakness until the end. Three weeks after he was operated on, Wayne was about to leave the hospital, looking terribly un-John Wayne, bound to a wheelchair. He was aghast when told that reporters waited outside, eager to confirm rumors about his real condition.
Reporters saw, not an emaciated patient, but a confident-looking John Wayne striding to the hospital entrance as if he had just been on a two-week vacation. He had kicked his wheelchair aside and “forced some color” into his face, truly an award-winning performance. At the car, Duke groaned as he asked for oxygen. (Wayne 188-189). Ronald Reagan remembered Wayne for his courage in the stand-off against communists in the film industry, his generosity and compassion to those suffering and in need.
Nancy, describing how it was to be with the Duke in moments of crisis, said “it was like being next to a force bigger than life. ” Elizabeth paid him a tribute by saying “He gave the whole world the image of what an American should be. ” John Wayne’s battle against cancer would inspire other sufferers to fight what was then considered an incurable disease. With his legendary tough talk, he told people that the Big C could be licked, and acted as if battling cancer was like taking cure for a cold. He was instrumental in raising millions of dollars for private cancer research.
He urged his doctors, when it was apparent there was no hope for a cure, to use his body for medical research (Reagan). His role of the cancer-stricken, dying gunfighter in The Shootist, depicted John Wayne at his best: courageous until the very end. As abovestated, John Wayne’s real life image is inseparable from his screen persona, no matter what role he played. Whether as a police officer, marine sergeant, frontiersman, gunfighter, John Wayne was John Wayne, and his fans could not care less. John Wayne was relevant and continues to be so because his fellow Americans still identify with him.
He had endured for so long because Americans saw themselves in his roles. To them, John Wayne was everything they could ever hope to be.
“Biography”. 19 May 2007. <http://www. leninimports. com/john. wayne. html> “John Wayne’s Congressional Gold Medal”. 20 May 2007. <jwplace. com/medal. html> O’Hara, Maureen. “John Wayne, American”. 19 May 2007. <http://www. congressionalgoldmedal. com/JohnWayne. htm> “Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient John Wayne”. 19 May 2007. <http://www. medaloffreedom. com/JohnWayne. html>